Image: Pirin National Park

We’re keen independent walkers, but for a holiday in three mountain areas of Bulgaria we’re so pleased we went in a small, friendly group with two expert guides, Vlado and Andrew.

We knew we were in a completely different place when we reached our first hotel, in the midst of the extensive woods of Vitosha National Park and with a view over Lake Studena. Originally a hunting lodge for communist leaders, it was very spacious, and the hall and dining room were decked rather gruesomely with a wild boar’s head and numerous deer skulls with antlers. Each of the downstairs bedrooms still had a gun cupboard (empty)! Wandering outside by ourselves, we found a huge flowering Philadelphus alive with hundreds of Marbled White butterflies, and not far away we were fascinated to watch a young woodpecker being fed beakfuls of the butterflies by its parent.

The next day’s outing was typical: in an attractive river valley there were so many plants in flower that we could hardly keep up with all the names, as well as trying to identify new butterflies and birds. After an ample picnic on the river bank, we moved on to another quiet country road where Vlado knew there was a rare species of orchid. In third area he showed us many more flowers, including a dark red knapweed, Centaurea immanuelis-loewii, a species found only in Greece and Bulgaria and listed as ‘vulnerable’ because populations are fragmenting. While we were here, we heard a strange bird calling which Andrew told us was a Corncrake – really exciting as it was the first time we’d ever heard it.

On the drive south to our second hotel, we visited the remarkable Rila Monastery where a few buildings survive from the early 14th century. However, most are from the mid-19th century, and the site is described as a masterpiece of Bulgarian National Revival architecture.

We loved the Pirin Mountains National Park where we had glimpses up to the bare marble top of the highest mountain (2,900 metres). Again, we revelled in the rich variety of flowers, including bright groups of gentians and orchids, and the interesting insect visitors on some of them. With Andrew’s help, we enjoyed watching a Nutcracker, and other birds. Early next morning, when we looked out of the hotel window in Bansko, we saw several elderly women picking wild flowers on the unused area below. Vlado explained that it was ‘Enyovden’ (herb day), when certain flowers are thought to be especially potent, especially those picked at sunrise. Our second day in the Pirin Mountains was very rewarding. Starting at the chalet at 2,000 metres, we climbed upwards on a rough track, and eventually reached a wide vista: mountains above us and a wide stream rushing through the rocks, with a wooden bridge for walkers – a perfect place for group photos (these would be very suitable for adverts for Tilley hats!). We eventually reached about 2,200 metres where we saw plants typical of the high alpine zone, before we descended.

Driving next day to the Rhodope Mountains in the south, we passed through villages with storks on nests and feeding in the fields. At a stop to enjoy a flower-filled meadow we heard quail, then saw them flying. Also here, I had the memorable experience of a butterfly sitting on my hand for almost 5 minutes while I walked. Andrew said it was a Glanville Fritillary, and he also identified a rare copper butterfly and a Chimney Sweeper moth (completely black) – all firsts for us.

Before we visited the Trigrad Gorge, Vlado had heard that a Wallcreeper had been seen near the entrance. As we approached, we saw a man with huge camera who told us that he and his guide had been there for 3 hours, but without a sighting of the bird. On cue, it appeared on the rock above us, creeping up a slit, then flew over our heads to do the same on the rock at the other side. Its red patches were clearly visible. We were all thrilled.

Other highlights in the gorge were the waterfalls dropping down into Haramiyska Cave where evidence of Neolithic culture has been found. On the damp rocks were patches of purple-flowered Haberlea rhodopensis which is endemic in the Rhodope Mountains and a few other mountains in Bulgaria and Greece. Also, on a small area of flat land was a plot of cultivated Sidertis scardia, with yellow flowers – interesting because its leaves are used to make the herbal tea we’d enjoyed at several places.

At the end of the guided trip, we added two days in Sofia where we learnt much more about Bulgaria’s history and culture. Altogether a memorable holiday.

 

For further information about our 8-day 'Bulgaria - Flowers of the Balkans' holiday please visit the webpage.

 

Image used under licence from Shutterstock.

Image: Hoatzin

You have to see this bird to believe it. A featherless bright blue face with a beady maroon eye, topped by an orange feather Mohawk, attached to a plump oversize chicken body.

Who put this bird together?

And then, consider this. Hoatzins digest their food like cows; their young hatch with claws on their wings to help them cling to branches over water; and when an adult attempts flight it lumbers like an overloaded plane.

Is the Hoatzin one of nature’s whimsies or a design gone terribly wrong?

We didn’t care. We just enjoyed our many encounters with these bizarre members of the avian world during our 4-day stay at Napo Wildlife Centre in Ecuador’s Amazon.

We began this tour on the slopes of the Andes where we successfully located some of Ecuador’s shyer mammals. An Olinguito, recognised in 2013 as a new species, quarrelled with a bullying Kinkajou at Bellavista Cloudforest Lodge. A big, black Spectacled Bear lounged on a roadside hill near Papallacta. And high in Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve, telescopes revealed a pair of Mountain Tapir with their signature white lips.

This was billed as a mammal tour with birds as a complimentary side. And to date the birds had been grand. Turquoise jays, the colour of a cloudless sky, and garish yellow and green Inca Jays, behaved raucously as jays do. Tanagers of every colour combination appeared, rain or shine, with or without bananas to tempt them. And Booted Racket-tail Hummingbirds with their exclamation mark tails and fuzzy ankles always brought a smile to my face.

Now we were in the Amazon hoping for Giant Otters, tamarins, and anacondas. And about to be delighted by the creek clowns, the Hoatzins.

Hoatzins live only in the Amazon rainforest, most often along slow-moving, shallow streams or oxbow lakes with abundant vegetation at the water’s edge. Often they make their presence known by odd grunting noises that accompany their leaf munching, or by clumsy wing-flapping.

Our introduction to the Amazon began in the oil city of Coca (or Puerto Francisco de Orellana). Here we settled into motorised canoes for the 2-hour journey down the Napo River, Ecuador’s primary Amazonian tributary. Then we transferred to paddled canoes for the final couple of hours along a narrow creek in Yasuni National Park that would lead us to Anangu Lake and the well-appointed Napo Wildlife Centre.

And Hoatzin welcomed us along every stretch of that shallow black water creek. Sometimes four, five or more were perched on an overhanging branch. Sometimes they stayed perfectly still – easier for us to scrutinise their quirky parts. Sometimes they squawked and flew a few feet – better for us to see the rich rust of their underwing coverts and their feathery pantaloon legs. We soon realised that, if you missed one photographic opportunity, another would be right around the next bend.

It wasn’t easy to pull ourselves away each day from the Napo Wildlife Centre to investigate the lake and creeks and the parrot clay-licks. Our red thatched cottages hugged the lake’s edge and all paths led up to the spacious main lodge. From the comfort of chair or hammock on my front porch I could watch the brown swallows at water’s edge and hope for a Giant River otter swim-past. One rainy morning we climbed the 100+ steps inside the lodge to the top of the canopy tower, 36 metres above, and scoped out Red Howler Monkeys, Golden-mantled Tamarins, and countless birds. An elevator (being repaired during our stay) works for the less ambitious.

NWC is owned, operated and staffed by the local Kichwa community. At each level of the main lodge natural wood furnishings and local art pieces remind you of their rich culture. NWC blends comfort and culture with a unique wilderness experience and the Hoatzins stand out as one of its most amusing and easily visible attractions.

 

For further information about our 15-day 'Ecuador's Mammals' holiday please visit the tour webpage.

Image used under licence from Shutterstock.

Spirit Bears, Grizzlies & Humpbacks – Cruising the Great Bear Rainforest

Image: Spirit Bear (Lee Morgan)

Situated to the north of Vancouver Island, the Great Bear Rainforest covers countless thousands of square miles of uninhabited Pacific British Columbia. This wilderness is a land of mountains clothed in old growth forest, from their misty tops down to the rocky-edged waterline – Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, cedar and Red Alder dripping with lichens and beards of trailing moss and ferns. This forms a virtually impenetrable habitat to man, but is home to Wolves, bears, eagles, ravens and a vibrant natural community of other forest creatures. On overcast days the saw-tooth edged headlands of trees march away into the distance, overlapping each other in diminishing grey tones, until dissolved in descending low cloud. Vast channels of the sea penetrate deep inland between these green mountains, the whole area being accessible only by boat or seaplane.

On days of sparkling sunshine we encounter scattering small flocks of pied-plumaged Common Murres and Red-necked Phalaropes, or skeins of harlequin-headed Surf Scoters journeying to the open sea. Anchoring in remote coves we leave our boat, the Island Roamer, in Zodiacs, to explore the wildlife of the furthest recesses of the sea. Ashore, where the tumbling rivers issue forth, is the spectacle of the annual salmon run which drives this whole ecosystem. The shallow waters teem with shoals of the huge fish, wriggling their bodies in the ‘redds’ of gravel where spawning takes place. Only death follows for these magnificent creatures after they’ve passed on their genes to the next generation. Masses of pale fish corpses litter the water and banks, slowly dissolving into the landscape, fuelling it with nutrients, their flesh recycled widely by the bears, gulls and eagles that feast on them.

The special experiences offered by this unique land stir the spirit and move the mind. To be present and to observe the whole swirl of wildlife at these junctions of river and sea beneath the myriad greens of the forest trees is a humbling experience. On one occasion our group stood appreciatively in the soft Pacific rain to witness families of chocolate-furred Grizzly Bears feasting on the salmon, aware but unconcerned by our presence. Clouds of hovering Bonaparte’s, California and other gulls wheeled over the river, grabbing scraps from the bears’ feasts in the water, while overhead up to 10 Bald Eagles, adults and juveniles, circled in the misty sky, awaiting their turn to descend.

On another day, ashore on Gribbell Island, we walked a narrow old former logging trail to a wooden stand built out over the river bank to observe a very rare and special animal, enshrined in First Nations people’s hearts and folklore – the Spirit Bear. Sitting quietly here we were thrilled over the course of the day to see two individuals of these white, honey-tinged hunters patrolling the river very close to us, strolling casually along the fallen logs in the shallow stream, their eyes trained on the spawning salmon, occasionally plunging and catching a writhing sleek fish in their claws and sharp-toothed jaws. Calmly retiring to the river bank to eat their catch among the bushes, they only momentarily glanced in our direction, content to accept us as part of the scene. This was a special privilege for all of us, just for a few hours, to absorb something of the bear’s world, and we trooped back to our boat truly elated to have been so lucky. Spirit Bears are in fact Black Bears, their coat colour the result of a recessive gene. Here on this island they form as much as a quarter of the total bear population of about 40 animals. A day later, on an early morning Zodiac trip on the black mirror-calm water of Cameron Cove, we listened in complete silence to the chittering calls of Bald Eagles, the harsh varied croaking of ravens and the distant, eerie, bone-chilling howls of distant Wolves echoing in the mountains.

So many other wonderful encounters with wildlife and the landscapes were our good fortune on this trip. We viewed ancient red pictographs adorning the sheer rock walls in isolated places, and were awed by massive waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet down mountainsides, their force swollen by recent rains. Also gazing into the bull kelp-strewn quiet channels packed with undersea life was an extra revelation – Moon and Lion’s Mane jellyfish, huge softly spined orange sea cucumbers and ghostly ectoplasms of nudibranchs floating in the current heightened our appreciation and understanding of these ecosystems – informed by our enthusiastic and knowledgeable naturalist guides Lee and his wife Lindsay.

The cetacean-life was spectacular too: numerous fluking Humpback Whales throughout our voyage, plus occasional Fin Whales and Dall’s Porpoises added to the mix. The highlight had to be the occasion when we were tracking slowly in Ocean Roamer alongside a Humpback Whale repeatedly breaching right beside us, its huge glistening black 40-tonne frame laced with water before it plunged back in exploding banks of white foam. And just within the last 20 minutes of the voyage we travelled amidst a pod of 7 Orcas, their various-shaped dorsal fins slicing the choppy waters of Milbanke Sound. Pure magic – we couldn’t have wished for better.

For further information about our 10-day 'Spirit Bears, Grizzlies & Humpbacks – Cruising the Great Bear Rainforest' tour please visit the webpage.

 

group photo_PJD_1020026

Image: 2015 Spitsbergen Naturetrek Charter

We were divided into three groups: the Hikers, the Enthusiastic Walkers and the Leisurely Walkers. The ship’s doctor, Veronique, attached herself to the Enthusiastic Walkers on the grounds that since this was the largest group, they would statistically have greater need for treatment. Her logic was thwarted, however, when the Enthusiastic Walkers split into two groups: the Very Enthusiastic Walkers and the Not so Enthusiastic Walkers. This division enabled the Hikers to reach the mighty glacier wall at Esmarbreen, the Very Enthusiastic Walkers to track reindeer at Blomstrandhalvoya, the Not so Enthusiastic Walkers to spend time estimating the speed of glacier movement, and the Leisurely Walkers to become expert in the 18 or so varieties of minuscule saxifrages found within 50 feet of landing sites and which will undoubtedly come to dominate the landscape once global warming has had its wicked way with the polar ice-cap.

Eventually, the Leisurely Walkers also split into two groups, the Not so Leisurely walkers and the Very Nearly Stationary walkers. The latter group retired to the bar and ship’s bridge where they became expert in spotting Blue, Fin and Humpback whales ‘in directions no one else was looking’.

All groups combined for a Zodiac excursion to experience the thousands of Brünnich’s Guillemots at the colony at Alkefjellet. This involved dodging guillemot poo – a remarkable airborne substance resembling araldite which is attracted by four-stroke engines. It has the ability to eat through Gortex, weld camera parts together and (according to Veronique) is also a source of potent avian parasites.

At 80 degrees 47 minutes north, 5 Polar Bears were feasting on a Bearded Seal – possibly the highlight of the trip for everyone, except the seal. And at Smeerenburg, a group of Walrus was spotted sunbathing on the strand. Everyone got great pictures of flatulating animals – some even including the Walruses. At Fugelsongen we enjoyed being surrounded by thousands of little auks and to hear their chicks calling for their parents. Meanwhile, the Nearly Stationary Walkers spent their time Zodiac’ing around with magnificent views and myriads of birds flying overhead.

A lady hiker, envious of the lifestyle and Bombay Sapphire being enjoyed by the Very Nearly Stationary Walkers, decided to switch groups and was followed by like-minded friends. Birders from the hikers enticed birders from the Not so Enthusiastic Walkers with stories of the Ivory Gulls etc they had seen. Group boundaries were overlapping and things were getting complicated. A very-nearly-not so-enthusiastic-walking-birders group was proposed, but defeated on a re-count. Overall, a good time was had by all.

Philosophical questions remain: 

Why does a Bearded Seal only have a moustache?

Which was named first, the Common Guillemot or the Brünnich’s Guillemot?

How come we lost weight despite three excellent meals a day?

Our sincere thanks go to all the Naturetrek guides and all the staff on Ortelius for their amazing knowledge, boundless enthusiasm and ability to ensure that everyone was catered for and had a brilliant holiday that none will forget.

 

For further information about our 11-day 'Spitsbergen Wildlife Cruise' please visit the tour webpage.

From the Woods to the Water 

Image: Marsh Harrier

It’s not often I get to see a Red-backed Shrike, let alone one that flies towards you and sits up on a bush just 10 yards away; and I’ve never before seen a Wallcreeper, so busy feeding off the insects in the crevices of the limestone gorge that he ignores the birding paparazzi following his every move; nor a Little Bittern, also so engrossed in devouring a Marsh Frog that he seems oblivious of the 16 nature-watchers on the foredeck of the passing  boat …

I am on Naturetrek’s 10-day Romanian tour, starting in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. On a cool, clear morning, light clouds tippling over the limestone crags, our sharp-eyed expert guides Jason and Laurentio point out White Wagtails, forming a regular chorus to a star line-up of Nutcrackers, Water Pipits, Whinchats, Eurasian Jays, Buzzards, the much esteemed Black Woodpecker, and many more.

But it’s not all about the birds. A variety of Wall Browns and fritillaries dance by, while  eyes cast downwards pick out small lizards, toads, and long-horned beetles. Through the trees we spot a woollen-cloaked and hatted shepherd off the set of Sherlock Homes Meets Robin Hood, except that he has real guard dogs who gun for the two mongrel sheepdogs tagging along with us. They all yelp and roar off down the wooded slopes. Later, from a wooden hide reached by a rickety planked bridge over a stream, we watch Brown Bears feeding in a forest clearing. The spirit of Transylvania is further invoked by a visit to the hugely atmospheric Bran Castle, the inspirational location for Bram Stoker’s Dracula – and for modern-day tourism of the more extreme kind!

Time to head down to the Danube Delta. At Tulcea port our boats await, with a chance to relax on deck with a beer before sundown and watch the Whiskered Terns patrolling the river. Tulcea is home to an extended fleet of houseboats, tour boats, tug boats, passenger boats, motor boats, fishing boats, rowing boats, and even an historic naval paddle boat, all hugging its long quay on an outside bend of the Danube. Meccano-like shipyard cranes keep a watch in the background, as does  the Romanian Navy further downstream.

Next morning the plan is to set off in the ‘day-boat’. But when, half an hour later, the engine suddenly dies, Plan A looks uncertain. Spirited attacks in the engine room with wrenches, curses, and even blow torches are to no avail. As a motor boating enthusiast myself, this looks and sounds all too familiar. No matter, Plan B is soon put into place. The ‘tug-boat’ will tow us in the ‘houseboat’, and we will transfer later to the repaired day-boat. No problem.

And no problem it is. Back down the main Sulina Channel we go, spotting Red-footed Falcons, Marsh Harriers, a White-tailed Sea Eagle, and high flights of white Pelicans. After lunch we are back in the by-now repaired day-boat to explore the wider Delta, a vast maze of smaller channels and lakes flanked mostly by reeds and willows. The bird count is phenomenal. Squacco, Purple and Night Herons note our progress, and Pygmy Cormorants man the posts. Kingfishers zing blue along the banks. Caspian Terns, Spoonbills, and waders of all kinds feed or doze in the lakes.  A shy crake chick scurries over lily pads to avoid our prying binoculars and clicking cameras, scattering a small shoal of rosy-finned Rudd.

Fishermen are everywhere, zooming up and down the channels in overpowered boats, camping on the shore with lines of rods, or hunched up in rowing boats. On the off-chance, I have brought my little portable spinning rod. With a little help from our enthusiastic crew I manage to catch a couple of jack pike, despite the alarming attentions of a swimming Dice Snake which provokes a shriek from one of the cabin crew. But the pike provides a tasty supper, and I feel that I have captured the flavour of the Delta in more ways than one.

Finally we head southwards to the vast rolling hills of the Babadag Plateau, populated by new forests of wind farms as well as old forests of limes and chestnut trees, home to turtles and eagles. Paddling along the warm surf of the Black Sea shore we spot a rich variety of gulls, terns and waders.

Thanks to our brilliant guides we have, in less than 10 days, seen an astonishing array of species within three distinctly different landscapes, habitats and cultures. We have been very lucky, and we know it.

For further information about our 10-day 'Romania's Danube Delta & Carpathian Mountains' holiday please visit our tour webpage.

Image used under license from shutterstock